Alastor

Jack Vance

Orb Books

CHAPTER 1
 
 
Chamber 2262 along the Ring of the Worlds pertains to Trullion, the lone planet of a small white star, one spark in a spray curling out toward the Cluster’s edge. Trullion is a small world, for the most part water, with a single narrow continent, Merlank,* at the equator. Great banks of cumulus drift in from the sea and break against the central mountains; hundreds of rivers return down broad valleys where fruit and cereals grow so plentifully as to command no value.
The original settlers upon Trullion brought with them those habits of thrift and zeal which had promoted survival in a previously harsh environment; the first era of Trill history produced a dozen wars, a thousand fortunes, a caste of hereditary aristocrats, and a waning of the initial dynamism. The Trill commonalty asked itself: Why toil, why carry weapons when a life of feasts, singing, revelry and ease is an equal option? In the space of three generations old Trullion became a memory. The ordinary Trill now worked as circumstances directed: to prepare for a feast, to indulge his taste for hussade, to earn a pulsor for his boat or a pot for his kitchen or a length of cloth for his paray, that easy shirtlike garment worn by man and woman alike. Occasionally he tilled his lush acres, fished the ocean, netted the river, harvested wild fruit, and when the mood was on him, dug emeralds and opals from the mountain slopes, or gathered cauch.* He worked perhaps an hour each day, or occasionally as much as two or three; he spent considerably more time musing on the verandah of his ramshackle house. He distrusted most technical devices, finding them unsympathetic, confusing, and—more important—expensive, though he gingerly used a telephone the better to order his social activities, and took the pulsor of his boat for granted.
As in most bucolic societies, the Trill knew his precise place in the hierarchy of classes. At the summit, almost a race apart, was the aristocracy; at the bottom were the nomad Trevanyi, a group equally distinct. The Trill disdained unfamiliar or exotic ideas. Ordinarily calm and gentle, he nonetheless, under sufficient provocation, demonstrated ferocious rages, and certain of his customs—particularly the macabre ritual at the prutanshyr—were almost barbaric.
The government of Trullion was rudimentary and a matter in which the average Trill took little interest. Merlank was divided into twenty prefectures, each administered by a few bureaus and a small group of officials, who constituted a caste superior to the ordinary Trill but considerably inferior to the aristocrats. Trade with the rest of the Cluster was unimportant; on all Trill only four space-ports existed; Port Gaw in the west of Merlank, Port Kerubian on the north coast, Port Maheul on the south coast, and Vayamenda in the east.
A hundred miles east of Port Maheul was the market town Welgen, famous for its fine hussade stadium. Beyond Welgen lay the Fens, a district of remarkable beauty. Thousands of waterways divided this area into a myriad islands, some tracts of good dimension, some so small as to support only a fisherman’s cabin and a tree for the mooring of his boat.
Everywhere entrancing vistas merged one into another. Gray-green menas, silver-russet pomanders, black jerdine stood in stately rows along the waterways, giving each island its distinctive silhouette. Out upon their dilapidated verandahs sat the country folk, with jugs of homemade wine at hand. Sometimes they played music, using concertinas, small round-bellied guitars, mouth-calliopes that produced cheerful warbles and glissandes. The light of the Fens was pale and delicate, and shimmered with colors too transient and subtle for the eye to detect. In the morning a mist obscured the distances; the sunsets were subdued pageants of lime green and lavender. Skiffs and runabouts slid along the water; occasionally an aristocrat’s yacht glided past, or the ferry that connected Welgen with the Fen villages.
In the dead center of the Fens, a few miles from the village of Saurkash, was Rabendary Island, where lived Jut Hulden, his wife Marucha, and their three sons. Rabendary Island comprised about a hundred acres, including a thirty-acre forest of mena, blackwood, candlenut, semprissima. To the south spread the wide expanse of Ambal Broad. Farwan Water bounded Rabendary on the west, Gilweg Water on the east, and along the north shore flowed the placid Saur River. At the western tip of the island the ramshackle old home of the Huldens stood between a pair of huge mimosa trees. Rosalia vine grew up the posts of the verandah and overhung the edge of the roof, producing a fragrant shade for the pleasure of those taking their ease in the old string chairs. To the south was a view of Ambal Broad and Ambal Isle, a property of three acres supporting a number of beautiful pomanders, russet-silver against a background of solemn menas, and three enormous fanzaneels, holding their great shaggy pompoms high in the air. Through the foliage gleamed the white façade of the manse where Lord Ambal long ago had maintained his mistresses. The property was now owned by Jut Hulden, but he had no inclination to dwell in the manor; his friends would think him absurd.
In his youth Jut Hulden had played hussade for the Saurkash Serpents. Marucha had been sheirl* for the Welgen Warlocks; so they had met, and married, and brought into being three sons, Shira and the twins Glinnes and Glay, and a daughter, Sharue, who had been stolen by the merlings.†
 
*Merlank: a variety of lizard. The continent clasps the equator like a lizard clinging to a blue glass orb.
 
*cauch: an aphrodisiac drug derived from the spore of a mountain mold and used by Trills to a greater or lesser extent. Some retreated so far into erotic fantasy as to become irresponsible, and thus the subject of mild ridicule. Irresponsibility, in the context of the Trill environment, could hardly be accounted a critical social problem.
 
*sheirl: an untranslatable term from the special vocabulary of hussade—a glorious nymph, radiant with ecstatic vitality, who impels the players of her team to impossible feats of strength and agility. The sheirl is a virgin who must be protected from the shame of defeat.
†merlings: amphibious half-intelligent indigenes of Trullion, living in tunnels burrowed into the riverbanks. Merlings and men lived on the edge of a most delicate truce; each hated and hunted the other, but under mutually tolerable conditions. The merlings prowled the land at night for carrion, small animals, and children. If they molested boats or entered a habitation, men retaliated by dropping explosives into the water. Should a man fall into the water or attempt to swim, he had intruded into the domain of the merlings and risked being dragged under. Similarly, a merling discovered on land was shown no mercy.
 
Trullion: Alastor 2262, copyright © 1973 by Jack Vance, copyright renewed © 2001 by Jack Vance